- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Virginia has some of the nation’s harshest drunken-driving laws, the result of legislation passed in the last session of the General Assembly.

Still, chinks in the state’s driving laws are making the roads unsafe and costing taxpayers billions of dollars, a traffic-safety watchdog contends.

The problems: Drivers aren’t required to keep a cork on alcoholic beverages while driving or buckle up, unless they are stopped for another infraction.

“These are all tough battles, but they are essential battles,” said Jacqueline Gillian, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which prepared the report. “How long does Virginia want to keep facing more deaths and injuries?”

The study ranks each state and the District based on 14 laws that regulate factorsas varied as motorcycle helmets and booster seats.

Last year, highway crashes in the United States killed 42,643 persons, 172 fewer than in 2002 . In Virginia, however, the number of highway deaths rose from 914 in 2002 to 943 in 2003.

The study cites a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report that says car wrecks cost Virginia $5.2 billion annually.

Virginia enforces nine of the group’s 14 benchmark regulations, but remains on “yellow alert” because it does not ban open containers and has no primary seat-belt law.

Proposals to make those changes routinely are killed by the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee in the House of Delegates.

One member of the panel has put forward a bill to penalize drivers for open containers, and Delegate William K. Barlow, Isle of Wight Democrat, has indicated that he would propose a primary seat-belt law if no one else did.

Driving without a seat belt is illegal in the state, but police must stop an offender for another infraction to enforce the seat-belt violation.

Mr. Barlow noted that momentum gradually is building for the restrictions — especially the open-container law — as drunken-driving deaths increase.

“To me, it’s a no-brainer,” Mr. Barlow said. “Why would anybody ride down the road with an open container if they weren’t either drinking from it, planning to drink from it or being tempted by it?”

Lawmakers fighting the open-container law have cited examples in which the law could be misused — such as a tailgater who leaves a game with an open but unconsumed bottle or a priest who takes Communion wine to a homebound parishioner.

“There’s certainly an amount of discretion there,” Mr. Barlow told the Daily Press of Newport News.

Mr. Barlow said that passing primary seat-belt legislation is likely to be more difficult because opponents argue that the law is too intrusive because it forces citizens to take safety measures.

Delegate Glenn Oder, Newport News Republican, proposed a law that would make riding anywhere in a car without a seat belt illegal for people 16 years or older. Current law requires only that seat belts be worn in the front seat.

Mr. Oder said it’s an important restriction because an unsecured passenger in the back seat easily could be injured and harm other riders who are buckled up.

Mr. Oder’s outlook on his bill highlights the views of the conservative House panel.

“It has a chance because, clearly, it’s dangerous,” he said. “And it’s not primary enforcement.”

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